This year, for only the second time, Idaho is having a closed Republican primary — which means you can only vote in it if you are a registered Republican.
Gov. Butch Otter recently expressed concern about the potential impact of a closed primary and the number of people it could disenfranchise: “I didn’t think it was a good idea to do that. But that’s what the party wanted to do and that’s what the Central Committee of the Republican Party voted for, so that’s what we do.” I agree that the closed primary is a bad idea, but the reality is that it’s only happened now because party officials ignored the grassroots.
As a delegate at the 2008 Idaho Republican Convention, I led the charge with State Sen. Jeff Siddoway to keep Idaho’s primary open. We successfully won a vote on the floor to keep it open and end a lawsuit aimed at closing it.
The response from the newly elected party chairman? He ignored our vote and proceeded with the lawsuit anyway. (At the next convention, a vote was secured to support closing the primary. I and many other supporters of open elections didn’t show up. Why bother when your vote doesn’t count?)
I believe most Idaho Republicans agree with their Republican governor and that first convention vote: Keep the primary open. Because of a lawsuit that mandates allowing party leaders to close the primary if they wish (even over objections from the majority of their own party), it’s impossible for the Idaho Legislature to return to the open Republican primaries of our past.
But they could take a more radical step, like the state of Washington, and end party primaries altogether. Washington state’s truly open primary allows each voter to vote for whomever they like regardless of party. The two candidates with the most votes advance to the General Election. Sometimes that means the General Election is between two people of the same party, and that’s OK. The point is to ensure that voters, not party bureaucrats, decide whom our elected officials will be.
Reducing the power of political parties would also be a good step towards restoring the political system envisioned by our Founding Fathers (or at least our first president). In his farewell address in 1796, George Washington noted:
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, is the executive director of Conservation Voters for Idaho. He has been active in protecting Idaho's environment, expanding LGBT rights and the Idaho Republican Party.